The role of the company secretary is undergoing gradual change to its traditional model, largely as a result of the innovative developments in legal technology. In a quickfire Q&A with Thomson Reuters Legal Insights Europe, Dottie Schindlinger, an expert in the field of corporate governance, and Vice-President/Governance Technology Evangelist at Diligent, discusses what the future may hold for the role of a company secretary.
What skill sets are required to succeed in the 21st century as a company secretary?
With the rapid acceleration in technological innovation comes profound change in just about every aspect of our lives, including our work. What our jobs will entail, what will determine success—all of these things are as likely to experience dramatic change in the coming decade as in the past decade. The only thing that is certain is that things will be different in the future than they are now. The best way for company secretaries to prepare for the coming changes is to adopt an attitude of “lifelong learning”—don’t be intimidated by technological innovation, rather, dive in and learn as much as possible about burgeoning technologies. If you don’t know anything today about algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, blockchain, or augmented reality—don’t wait, go learn about them. There are a number of sources available to help , all within easy reach of a Google search.
Where else should company secretaries be leading across the business?
In the traditional model, the company secretary was more like a gatekeeper—carefully cultivating the right data sets and information to bring before the board. But now, many directors are less interested in waiting for this kind of curated information and prefer to do their own research using any means at their disposal. In the coming years, I believe company secretaries will become more like “air traffic controllers”—keeping their eyes and ears open across all leadership levels and helping direct information flow across teams. Rather than expecting to be able to control all the information flow, the company secretary will need to acknowledge that information will flow with or without their help—so their pivotal role will be in ensuring information flows as effectively as possible to the right sets of eyes at the right moment, and ensure directors have the contextual information they need to make sense of what they are reading/hearing/seeing.
How do you get the breadth of business knowledge to become a successful company secretary?
Never stop learning—you should always be a student of your business, your industry, your role, your peers, your competitors, regulators, media, shareholders/stakeholders, and more. It’s not an easy job, but those who do it well provide exceptional value to their organisations. A good company secretary can literally be the difference between an engaged board and a complacent one – and organisations with complacent boards aren’t likely to fare well. Spend time learning how other company secretaries approach their work—not just in your region/industry, but in other industries and parts of the globe. Be curious—ask questions —never stop seeking new ways to approach old problems.
Given the potential impact of automation on the role of the company secretary, what will the job look like? Does the role need to be reinvented?
The greatest skill you can develop is resilience—the ability to adapt quickly, and to determine the value you can bring to each new situation as it evolves. For example, if a new AI-driven technology reduces the need for the board to call you and get information from you, then your most valuable asset could become your ability to help the board derive insight from the information they collect from external sources. Or, if even this ability becomes automated by AI, you could bring value by helping directors create the best questions to pose to the AI-enabled system. Bottom line—expect your job to change and be open to the possibility that while it will certainly be different, it could ultimately be more interesting work and a more satisfying career.